Relative of student and faculty featured on high-pressure culinary show

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Screengrab from Hulu

At the end of season one episode 13 of "Chopped Sweets," pastry chef Ashley Torto had to make three desserts with unusual ingredients.

Nicky Edwards-Levin, Editor-In-Chief

Pastry chef Ashley Torto looked her competitor — a towering tall, stoic Frenchman — dead in the eyes. It was the final round of “Chopped Sweets,” and with $10,000 on the line, Ms. Torto, professional as ever, took a breath, opened her basket and got down to work.

While being on “Chopped Sweets” was a creative and culinary challenge for Ms. Torto, ultimately, it was an exercise in performance under pressure — a skill Ms. Torto had been practicing for years.

Ms. Torto is a pastry chef at the Waldorf Astoria Chicago, sister of music department chair Rozalyn Torto and aunt of senior Luke Sikora. She competed on “Chopped Sweets” in October, but the episode aired April 21, and was eliminated in the final round. In “Chopped Sweets,” four chefs create desserts in three different rounds, each of which requires using various mystery ingredients, such as a rotisserie chicken, honey mustard dressing and century eggs, preserved eggs with a powerful smell and taste.

Recording the show and creating the desserts are drawn out over several hours — Ms. Torto was on set from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Even then, she said the hardest part of the show was the mental endurance it required.

“During the filming, there were tons of highs and lows,” Ms. Torto said. “It’s just ‘0, 100, 0, 100.’ They have to reset the set, the judges have to make decisions, all of that, so it takes a while.”

Ms. Torto said that being able to work through all of the excitement, nervousness and anticipation was crucial.

“The hardest part, by far, was the flux in emotion and the endurance it takes to get through all of that,” Ms. Torto said.

In fact, according to Ms. Torto, the cooking came easiest to her.

“When you’re really out there performing, you are just going for it,” Ms. Torto said. “You don’t have time to think — you get out there, open that basket, and then it’s just like tunnel vision. All you’re doing is getting the dish out there. It’s just a huge blur.”

All you’re doing is getting the dish out there. It’s just a huge blur.”

— Ms. Torto

Ms. Torto’s performance came directly as a result of many years of preparation. Initially, Ms. Torto attended college at Illinois State University with no intention of becoming a pastry chef.

“After four years of college, I entered the workforce and found myself sitting at a desk, and I thought, ‘This isn’t where I want to be,’” Ms. Torto said. 

She then made the switch to The French Pastry School in downtown Chicago, spending 40 hours a week perfecting her trade, all while working a job and an internship.

“It was one of the hardest times of my life: I was always tired, I had a million things to do all the time,” Ms. Torto said. “It was also, easily, one of the most rewarding times of my life.”

After rising through the Chicago pastry chef ranks, Ms. Torto, a self-described workaholic, earned her spot at one of the most recognizable luxury Chicago hotels, the Waldorf Astoria.

“Every day I have high expectations, from my work but also from myself. We are open 24/7,” Ms. Torto said, which has allowed her to perfect her technical skills.

Without her technical experience, Ms. Torto said she wouldn’t have stood a chance on “Chopped Sweets.”

“If you have a base of, say, ice cream, you can toss stuff in there and make it pretty good, no matter what,” Ms. Torto said. “It’s all about relating things back to basics — even at a high level like ‘Chopped,’ you work with the building blocks and then just go from there.”

According to her nephew, Luke Sikora, seeing the skills he was familiar with on TV was surreal.

“It was really fantastic to see my aunt on TV, and I am really proud of what she accomplished,” Luke said, “and I’m so glad that her skills were shared with the world.”

And even though she didn’t win the prize, Ms. Torto can walk away feeling satisfied with her performance.

“I might not have gotten the 10 grand, but at least I said ‘armpits’ on national TV.” Despite all of the cameras, Ms. Torto said that “Chopped Sweets” didn’t quite show one thing.

“You really just can’t see the long hours that people have worked, for them to get them to this point,” Ms. Torto said. “Every person who competed worked for years for their spot. You can show the fancy desserts and say, ‘Wow, that’s so impressive,’ but it’s really all about the time it takes to get there.”